In 1989, the Exxon Valdez met with a near-fatal accident on duty when she ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, resulting in severe injuries as the submerged rocks brutally punctured her not-so-resilient single-hull skin. This led to a forceful spewing of the eleven million gallons of crude oil that she carried in her steel belly into the pristine Alaskan waters. This unintentional oil-spill was the result of human error, but it unjustly pushed her on the path to widespread, lasting infamy. She was then taken by her guardians back to her original birthplace, and after spending nine months at the shipyard, she slowly convalesced, mustered the courage and began her second life as the Exxon Mediterranean.
The Oriental Nicety, age 26, left the mortal world amidst huge negative publicity on June 29, 2012, at the Alang shipbreaking yards in India after meeting with an unfortunate fatal accident. She plied the high seas for more than two decades under various names—including Exxon Valdez, Sea River Mediterranean, Mediterranean, Dong Fang Ocean, and Oriental Nicety—as she was christened and subsequently re-christened each time she became part of a new family. The ex-Exxon Valdez was born at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company’s shipyard in San Diego, California, on December 12, 1986, at yard number 438. She is survived and deeply missed by her sister USNS Mercy, a floating hospital ship. At the time of her birth, she was famously known as the largest ship ever built on the west coast of the United States. She measured 987 feet long, 166 feet wide, and 88 feet deep from the main deck to the flat keel, and capable of transporting about 1.48 million barrels of oil cargo. She proudly served the Exxon Shipping Company, and from there began her routine journeys of carting crude oil from Valdez in Alaska to Long Beach, California. Her voyages regularly supplied black gold to the oil-thirsty Americans.
The public hysteria that the ex-Exxon Valdez triggered by causing the biggest maritime oil spill in U.S. history would not let her live in peace, now branded as an infamous toxic ship. In 1993, the Exxon Shipping Company spun off its shipping arm to a subsidiary, called Sea River Maritime Inc., that fostered her. She was re-christened Sea River Mediterranean, and in 2005 again renamed simply as the Mediterranean. These were rather conscious attempts made by her foster parents to distance her from the disaster. Yet in 2005, she increasingly became a liability for Sea River Maritime Inc. due to changing global regulations, and was therefore sold to a Hong Kong-based company. Her third set of parents not only gave her a new name, the Dong Fang Ocean, but also gifted her an expensive new makeover to make her shine in the competitive world fleet market again. She successfully changed her identity from a supertanker into an iron ore carrier, because her parents wanted to benefit from the boom in the global ore trade. It seemed that her life was now finally back on track until she hit the final nail into her coffin. She met with an accident yet again, in the Yellow Sea that crippled her, rendering her useless in the eyes of her caretakers. In 2012, she was renamed for the very last time as the Oriental Nicety, and sold to an Indian Ship Scrapping Company for 16 million dollars.
The Oriental Nicety dedicated all her life to transporting cargo as safely and as economically viable as possible. She worked firstly for the Americans, then the Europeans, and lastly the Asians. During her lifetime, the names, owners, and flags hoisted on her body changed quite often. She took her last breath in a completely foreign land without her friends and family, amidst many other unknown geriatric vessels from different nationalities which also awaited their demolition at Alang shipbreaking yards. Even then, her death would not come easily. She sat on death row, waiting two months for an environmental audit from the highest judiciary body, the Supreme Court of India. As she waited for her turn, she saw how other ships were demolished, how every nut, every bolt in them was recycled and reused by the Indian workers. She pacified herself by thinking that death is never easy, but at least her steel organs and body would be useful for various purposes on this foreign soil. “My death will indeed lead me on a path of reincarnation maybe here or maybe somewhere else,” said the Oriental Nicety.
If one laments how unfair life has been to the Oriental Nicety and how tragic her death was, then I can offer some consolation to her grievers with the fact that her death was by no means an isolated case. Approximately 200 to 300 of these majestic floating giants make their most dreaded final journeys to the Alang shipbreaking yards every year, transgressing their national boundaries, leaving behind their glamorous original birthplaces, and sailing towards embracing their death in anonymity.
*This article originally appeared in Aerocene: Movements for the Air Munich Landing, ed. Alice Lamperti and Roxanne Mackie (Berlin: Ruksaldruck, 2020), 125-128.
*Cover image credit: Oriental Nicety at Alang shipbreaking yard, India. Photograph by Safety Officer, Satish Singh, 2012.
[Cover image description: a large vessel stranded at a shipbreaking yard.]